Canned tuna is big business. In fact, it's the second most frequently consumed seafood in the US at 2.7 pounds per person per year. Loosely translated, that's a lot of canned tuna per person! But as tuna's popularity increase, the tuna population is gradually declining due to overfishing and other threats to marine life.

There are many types of canned tuna, some of which are better for the environment than others. But do you really understand what the different types of canned tuna are and what the labels mean? Deciphering canned tuna labels will not only make buying it less confusing, but it will also ensure that you're buying only the most sustainably caught tuna. The information on canned tuna labels can tell you about the tuna populations, how it's been caught, and more. 

White Tuna vs Light Tuna

salmon, salad, tuna, smoked salmon
Yasmina Khal-Laayoun

There are at least four types of tuna species sold in cans, but the most common species you'll see in cans are white tuna or light tuna. White tuna is composed of albacore and has a higher mercury level. Because albacore is a larger tuna species, it eats more fish that might contain mercury. This large tuna species has a firm texture and a light-colored flesh. The mild flavor of albacore is similar to that of a baked chicken breast. White tuna is the perfect canned tuna to use when you want the other flavors of the dish to stand out.

Light tuna is a mixture of several smaller tuna species, such as skipjack, tongol, and sometimes yellowtail, and these smaller fish reproduce faster. The flesh of these smaller tuna is a pale pink color, and light tuna typically contains much less mercury than white tuna. It's also softer in texture and is more flavorful. Light tuna adds a nice flavor to other ingredients in the final dish.

Tuna Size and What It's Sitting In

Abbie Hui

The decision you make based on the size (solid, chunk, flake, and grated) and what it;s sitting in (water, oil, and olive oil) will further affect the texture and taste of your canned tuna experience.

As the word implies, solid tuna is whole pieces of tuna squeezed inside the can, and white tuna may be sold as solidChunk tuna is basically solid but size-varying tuna pieces scrambled together, which makes it a little less expensive than solid tuna. Typically, light tuna is found in chunk. There is another level of smaller tuna pieces: flake. This pressed tuna passed through a half inch mesh screen to make it so small. And last but not least, grated tuna is made into even smaller particles.

Water-packed tuna does not affect its taste and is believed to contain more omega-3 fatty acids. Oil-packed tuna, whether oil (vegetable oil) or olive oil (might have the Tonno label), can add a slight flavor to the tuna meat. 

Seasonings/ Flavors/ Other Ingredients

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Flavored tuna isn't common, but additional ingredients might be labeled as "seasoned with __" or "with added __." Soy and vegetable broth can also be added and make the tuna behave like a sponge, inflating the tuna up to as much as 20 percent with water. The smaller the chunks or flakes, the more water weight it will soak up.

Fishing Methods

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The tuna population is dropping every year, so it's up to us to opt for canned tuna that's been caught using sustainable fishing methods. The label "wild caught" means that the tuna was caught in the ocean and not farmed. "Dolphin safe/ friendly" means that tuna that swim with dolphins were not targeted, but this does not mean that this fishing method is safe for other sea creatures.

"Purse seines" is how most tuna are caught. A large net is used to encircle a school of fish, meaning many species of fish might be caught alongside the tuna. The use of a fish aggregating device (FAD), commonly used to attract skipjack, also catches many other types of fish, so tuna caught without a FAD is labeled "FAD-Free." The fishing method of pole-and-line, or troll, reduces bycatch, which is the incidental capture and death of non-targeted sea animals (bycatch isn't good for the ocean). The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a certification given to wild fisheries that meet various sustainability criteria. 


avocado, tuna, cucumber, rice, salmon
Olivia Chadwick

Low in fat and high in protein, canned tuna is a good source of essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, and Vitamins D and B12. In a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) portion, there is about 1 to 5 grams of fat and less than 50 milligrams of cholesterol and sodium.

The long-chained omega-3 fats are divided into two main types (EPA and DHA), which are needed for good heart health, a healthy brain support, growth, and more. According to USDA data, white tuna has a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids than light tuna. Furthermore, tuna packed in water has about three times as much omega-3 fatty acids than that packed in oil. Why? Because water and oil don't mix, so draining the liquid in water-packed tuna does not reduce the omega-3s. Another plus is that there are fewer calories in water-packed tuna

Which Type of Canned Tuna to Buy

Abbie Hui

When choosing between the types of canned tuna at the store, you should choose one that's the healthiest for you and that was caught using sustainable fishing practices. Larger tuna fish contain more methylmercury, while smaller tuna species (like those used in light tuna) contain lower levels of mercury. And because these smaller tuna are able to reproduce faster, their populations don't drop as rapidly compared to larger tuna species, like the albacore used in white tuna.

In addition, you should look for canned tunas that are MSC certified, caught using the poll and line method, and/or that are FAD-free. Making the canned tuna choice based on the size, what it's sitting in, and other additional ingredients really depends on personal preferences.

So the next time you go grocery shopping, make sure to check the labels and select the most nutritious and eco-friendly canned tuna. If you're wondering what masterpiece you can create with canned tuna, check out these recipes for a Mediterranean Tuna Melt and a Tuna, Kale, and Egg Salad.